The voice mail was muffled, as if the caller was speaking through a woolen sock, “I have some private information about Harvard basketball – call me if you’re interested.”
Okay, it didn’t really happen that way. The message was actually in my email inbox.
Still, how could I resist? Harvard had just pulled off the biggest upset of the NCAA tournament, toppling the highly ranked New Mexico Lobos. The media was abuzz about the whiz kids from Cambridge taking out a basketball powerhouse and nefarious rumors were starting to circulate that maybe Harvard had sold out. Maybe they were now just another big-time sports mill, recruiting athletes with sub-par academics just to win games. Hell, the ESPN commentator basically said as much during the broadcast. So when I got the email my curiosity was piqued. As much as I wanted to believe that the Ivy League was the last bastion of true student-athletes in Division I athletics, I felt it was important to hear everything. If I came away disillusioned, well, so be it, veritas isn’t always pleasant.
I called the number.
I had an interesting conversation with a person who is quite familiar with the internal workings of Ivy League athletics. We discussed boosters, academic indices and the uselessness of the GPA component of the Academic Index calculation. Then we got down to the nitty-gritty.
In the Ivy League, between the alumni, the athletic director and the administration, decisions are often made about prioritizing certain sports. That’s not really news. Certain schools are known to be traditionally strong in certain sports, think Yale hockey and Cornell wrestling. But the relatively quick turnaround in Harvard basketball under new coach Tommy Amaker’s leadership raised some eyebrows.
Here’s how it happened according to my source:
Harvard, tired of being a perennial also-ran in Ivy basketball decided to turn the program into a contender. In conjunction with the alumni booster organization, they brought in Tommy Amaker in 2007. Amaker had been at Duke, Seton Hall and Michigan. He was a coach who knew how to win at the highest level of college basketball. He also had a reputation for integrity. Having inherited a Michigan program damaged by sanctions and scandal, he had to run a squeaky-clean operation to help restore the ethical reputation of the Wolverines. Amaker was successful, smart and ethical, exactly the right man for the job.
Before taking over at Harvard, however, Amaker wanted some assurance that he would be able to recruit the players he needed to build a successful program. This meant being able to recruit from a larger pool of athletes than Harvard basketball had traditionally courted. Under the recruiting guidelines in the Ivy League, the pool of athletes on campus has to be academically similar to the rest of the student body. What that means in terms of statistics is that the average Academic Index of the recruited athletes must be within 1 standard deviation of the Academic Index of the general student body. At Harvard, being within one standard deviation means SAT scores for athletes near 700 per section and ACT composites around 32-33. That is a very, very small pool of potential Division I caliber athletes. The absolute floor for any recruit in the Ivy League is 176, which is around a B average and a 23-24 ACT -maybe not what you think of when you say ‘Harvard’, but still a much smaller pool of available athletes than Amaker had available at Duke or Michigan. As a point of reference, according to the the NCAA Eligibility Center, the minimum test scores for a Div 1 college athlete with a B average is a 620 combined math and critical reading, so 320 per section, and a 4 part ACT sum of 52. Let’s see, 52 divided by 4 is…13 ACT composite? Wow.
Amaker’s lowest academic recruit would likely be nicknamed “The Professor” on any other D1 basketball team.
But if you are an aspiring Harvard track, wrestling or rowing recruit with a 24 ACT, sorry, it’s not going to happen. How can a prioritized sport manage to get the kids it wants without running afoul of the Academic Index requirements? The answer is to balance the lower AI recruits with higher AI recruits, keeping the average within the limits. So if you have your eyes on a hot player who is a 177 index , you’re going to have to balance that with a high index recruit.
A high index recruit whose sole purpose is to raise the team’s average score is known as an ‘index booster’. Index boosters were a staple of Ivy League recruiting from the early1980s until 2003, when the league adopted additional restrictions to minimize the practice. Prior to 2003 the rule was that was that the team AI of admitted, not enrolled, recruits had to be within 1 standard deviation of the non-athlete index. This led to some almost comical situations. Before the rule changes, it wasn’t unusual for an Ivy League dean, friendly to a particular sport, to comb through a list of admitted students with high test scores to find students who had listed ice hockey or basketball participation on their applications. These students were then listed as recruits to boost the team average, often times without their knowledge. As long as they were admitted students, they could still be listed as recruits, even if they enrolled elsewhere! It wasn’t unusual for a strong academic applicant with ‘high school basketball’ on his application to be counted as a recruit at 3 or 4 different Ivy League schools.
Tim Taylor, Yale hockey coach from 1976 until 2006 was quoted in Chris Lincoln’s book, “Playing the Game” as saying,
Let’s say there’s a kid…he’s not good enough to play Division I hockey. He might have a 750 verbal and 800 math and be number 1 in his class. He comes in with a 230, 235 AI and he wants to go to Yale. He’s a kid admissions is probably going to admit anyway, so we list him. That kid never darkens my door, it’s no loss to the hockey program, but he helps us be in compliance. …I think everybody does it.”
The system was obviously was not accomplishing its intended goal. The recruiting rules in the Ivy League changed in 2003 to reduce the number of spots that could be used for athletic recruits. Under the new rules, basketball might only get 5 or 6 recruits in a given year. This eliminated the practice of listing smart kids as recruits with no intention of even meeting them, let alone playing them. With only 5 or 6 spots available to build the team each year – a coach really has to make all of them count. Well, almost all of them. Which brings me back to the phone conversation.
Amaker, according to the story, may have recruited a high Academic Index basketball player from a west coast prep school. The student was a only a borderline varsity player – certainly not Division 1 caliber – recruited with the sole purpose of boosting the team index and allowing Coach Amaker to recruit a player or two closer to the AI floor of 176. The recruit in question never played at Harvard. A Google search of “Men’s Basketball Adds Six Newcomers to the Fold for 2012-13 Season” leads to a Tweet from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard with a link to the full story at GoCrimson, the official site of Harvard athletics. The story on GoCrimson, however, is titled, “Men’s Basketball Adds Five Newcomers to the Fold for 2012-2013″ Hmm, smoking gun?. Is this evidence of the missing ‘high AI recruit’? Did Tommy Amaker, in essence, choose to burn one of his 6 slots, just to keep the team academic average up? Did Harvard Athletics scrupulously expunge any trace of the mystery recruit? We may never know for certain. But coaches and administrators from each school in the Ivy League meet to go over their recruit lists to ensure compliance with the agreed standards. So if Harvard basketball wants the stats of this recruit to be included as part of the team AI, his name, academic and athletic record will be available to every other coach in the league.
So we have a possibility that Coach Amaker may have recruited a student for his grades instead of his basketball prowess in order to keep his team academic index sufficiently high. I haven’t heard any allegations that any recruits were actually below the Academic Index requirement. As scandals go, this one probably isn’t going to cause much furor outside the athletic offices of the rest of the Ivy League.
But one of the things that make Ivy athletics unique in the world of Division 1 sports is that they make a genuine effort to make sure their athletes are representative of the student body. So when a team in the league is succeeding and they seem to be pushing the spirit, if not the letter, of the league agreement, there is going to be some blowback from their peers. They keep each other honest.
Having spent 5 years in Ann Arbor, mopping up after a Michigan basketball program rocked by investigations of gambling, money laundering and payouts to players in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with FBI and Department of Justice raids, Tommy Amaker has to be a little bemused about what passes for scandal in the world of athletics in which he now resides. But that’s a good thing, these guys are stewards of something much bigger than themselves.